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McNair received a B.S. in physics from North Carolina A&T State University in 1967, and a Ph.D. in the same discipline from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1976. He was also honored with honorary doctorates in 1978, 1980 and 1984.
He was a 5th-degree black belt karate instructor and had won five regional championships. Among a myriad of other studies in the field of physics, McNair had conducted research on the scientific foundations of the martial arts.
After graduation from MIT, he became a staff physicist at the Hughes Research Laboratories. He was selected for the astronaut program in 1978, and had flown a mission on the Challenger in February, 1984, also as a mission specialist.
McNair was a saxophonist; before the mission he worked with composer Jean Michel Jarre on a piece of music, Rendez-vous VI. It was intended that Ron would record his saxophone solo on board Challenger, making it the first piece of music played in space. After the disaster, the piece was renamed Ron's Piece.